Episode One – Jelili Atiku

Additional Reading:

This episode contains strong language and discusses heavy topics.

Chipo – Hello, I am Chipo Chipaziwa and welcome to Performing? No, Performance. This is a podcast in which I ask performance artists why and how they create the work that they create, and what does studio time mean and look like to them. I’m also joined by Live’s Brady Ciel Marks, who sometimes joins in on the conversation.

In this episode, I speak with Nigerian performance artist, Jelili Atiku. Jelili’s practice concerns itself with politics and humanity, and I am honored to have him as my first guest on this podcast. 

Chipo – Considering your work, I did a little bit of research and my own practice. I gave you a tidbit of it. I was wondering if you also have the need to be loud, controversial, and confrontational in order to be heard? 

Jelili – Well, that’s a kind of a difficult question because I wasn’t, I wasn’t my, my, my intention as a, as an artist was not to be heard in, in, in the consciously was to live as a human being and also to live as an artist. And I try to be sincere with myself, with my practice, you know, because when you, when when you talk of being heard, it means that I am, I’m pushing myself for people to, to listen to me. It means that I’m trying to get recognition and I, and I try to tell people that I don’t think I need to seek for recognition from anybody first. I’m a human. And I don’t, nobody means to, because that means to me seeking validation for my existence.

So I don’t do that. So I just practice my work as an artist and I just try to do my work, but I don’t need anybody to gimme validation for what I do. If you like my work, good. If you don’t like my work, good. I’m just being myself as an artist. And as an artist that’s coming from a Yoruba land that has been colonized and also trying to push to the world what it is that the colonialism has done that has pushed into the land, that has put into stagnant, you know, a great civilization, a great philosophy and a great values of, of, of life.

So when I try to push that and, and, and and, and of course being sincere, I’m determined with that it, it is not seeking recognition and it’s not seeking to be heard, but just be myself. . 

Chipo – Wow. I wish I was at that point in my career because I find myself, well, I found myself, especially in university and having a lot of White instructors making artworks that were actually seeking validation and trying to put myself in the discourse of, you know, the White canon of art history. And I was just wondering like…  because I feel like you have the help of experience on your side coming what you just said. Did you ever find yourself, when you were younger, at least kind of like grappling with who you’re making the artwork for, or if you were seeking validation? Or were you just from the get-go, once you decided to pursue art where you just like, I know who my audience is and I don’t really care if the people who don’t get it don’t get it.

Jelili – Well, of course, like I, I just said, I wasn’t seeking validation. I think I come from the struggle of trying to push who I am and let people just accept the way it is. I come from a, a situation where was struggle with colonialism, effect of colonialism where everything about us as a Yoruba person is seen as being devilish.

You know and wish you need to now be, be determined to say,  to a lot of people that that is wrong and that we are have an established civilization that has an established political system, that established social system, that as a religious system that is stronger in spirituality than whatever. Anything that you think all other, other aspects of religion of the world that you can think about.

So, and that give me that some of the kind of a strong energy to be who I am and that that is the struggle. And the struggle is to be who you are. It is different from seeking for validation because when you seek for validation, you’re saying that you should come and accept me. I don’t need that. I’ve said that earlier.

Because if, if you, if you, if you seek for validation, it means that you have to be doing things for them to like, for them to accept, no, I wasn’t doing that. I was just being who I am and also going back to myself and accept the reality that I have a bunch of experience that I rely on. So it it, it is, it is, it is a kind of, it’s a kind of a situation where you, you, you, you just want people to accept you for who you are, you know?

And coming from a different space, you must have to accept that, that my space is the only space that, that I choose, I that, that I. I can say that is my identity. That can define me, not your own space, because your space is, your space is quite different from my own space. Mm-hmm. I hope I’m making sense.

Chipo – No, you absolutely are. 

Jelili – So it’s just the, the, the question of validation, which I, which I find difficult to, to, to, to, you know, to, to bring into, into, into my conscience. I don’t seek for, I don’t seek validation because if I seek validation, I will be able to doing, be doing things that they are doing in Europe, in America, and other, other parts of the world.

But right now I wanna be who I am… by my own indigenous language. By my own indigenous idea, because the West has been appropriating in that indigenous value for a longer time. Mm-hmm. . And they were not acknowledging it. Picasso did it. The, the the, dada artists did it.

A lot of artists did it. Everyone did it. All of them. Most of those artists of the avant-garde appropriate values, forms, philosophy from my indigenous body, and they discourage us. They disconnect us from this indigenous body, so being dislocated. So I need to find my way back and connect to that and express it and project it.

Right and give forms to those stagnation that has been there in my, in, in my ancestral body. So that’s what I do now. Mm-hmm. 

Brady – Can I jump in with a little question?

Jelili – Yes. 

Brady – Ok. So, so I’m, I’m from South Africa. I was, I was born in South – I grew up there. And and one of the things I struggle with, and maybe you do too, is, is staying reconnected to, to where you’re from.

I guess my question is do, do you feel any like struggle with, like, being pulled into maybe like international sphere. I mean, we know you just did Venice and and you’re in the UK right now. Are you teaching? 

Jelili – No, I’m, I’m, I’m visiting I’m, I’m doing the project here. I’m leading the parade of a festival.

Brady – Oh, okay. I misunderstood. So for you, home is Lagos. It’s very very clear where your roots are. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I think maybe Chipo and I  struggle with, with that being stretched. What do you think? Chipo?

Chipo – Oh, absolutely. I struggle with where my roots are. So basically I am Zimbabwean, but I was born in Malaysia and then I had my formative years in Switzerland and New York, and then I only spent one year in Zimbabwe, and then afterwards that I moved to Vancouver to attend university and I just haven’t left since.

So it’s inspiring to like meet an artist who’s very much like, I know who I am, I’m gonna stick, stick to my roots. Don’t really care what anybody else has to say. But when you were speaking earlier, I couldn’t help but associate the word validation with community. And I was just wondering like, have you ever felt a sense of loneliness when you’re making these works and you’re putting them out there, or do you – Yeah. Do you feel a sense of loneliness with the works that you create? 

Jelili – Yes, of course. Of course. You know because we, we, like I had said earlier that my country is a post-colonial country. Mm-hmm. , right? Mm-hmm. . Going through that, like when you are dislocated, you are disconnected and the majority of the people still maintain their own disconnection and think that is the reality of their own existence.

And when you are reconnecting back, you feel lonely that you think you are the only one that is doing it. Hmm. Because a lot of people want to even struggle with you. To say what you are doing actually is not it, they want to push to you that the Western idea is an authority. Mm-hmm. , you know. 

Brady – Sorry, say that.Say that again. 

Jelili – That that majority of the people of your own, your own community want to tell you that what you are actually doing is wrong. That the, the ideal, the ideas from the Western world is an authority. Yes, yes. Yes. Yeah. And so you struggle with that. And also to bring them back into the, into the source of trying to understand, I was, I was trying  to explain to some of my students, you know, I, I teach, you know, in, in some other workshops and in the universities, Israeli, in the US, I was explaining to my students sometimes ago about how Picasso, you know, the early, the Picasso, when he had interaction with, with other culture, how he was appropriating the African forms.

Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. , you know, so, and when you are moving, you are studying the European artistry, it is not clearly stated that Picasso appropriate, you know, the African forms in most of his works. It is just let’s recently that people were now trying to put his its works into, into period, you know?

Yeah. And, and, but himself never really really you know, acknowledge the fact that it was borrowing heavily from the forms of Africa, right? Mm-hmm. , right? And so, so, so, so for us, it, it’s, it to me as, as, as an example, it, it becomes like a kind of a principle to, for the people for the whole world to see that I, I’m so confident, like I can borrow from, from my own ancestral body. Mm-hmm. , right. And use the, in, in, in more like a form that I wish to direct my forms to, or visual influence. I rather look, and philosophically I’d rather look within myself, you know, because I, I don’t understand that even though Chipo, You are, you, you have moved around in, in, in, in, in places. Yes. Your ancestral body still dictates who you are.

Mm-hmm. , because you have, you have a brown body. Yes. People call a black body. It is because you are coming from a certain ancestral body that is this a natural thing . It is not me dividing it. It is a natural thing. It is a natural tendency that I have an ancestral body that connects to Yoruba and have different language that define their own philosophy with their own local language, which they see as energy because Yoruba seen was as energy.

So when I carry name, I, I should be able to carry name that define my own energy .you know, so, so it’s very, it’s, it’s natural for me. So I, I, I felt that I would be more sincere to myself. I would be living more sincere life if I, I, I, I go into my own DNA  mm-hmm, right? And, and use contents, and use forms from there. It’s as simple as that. Cause my ancestral body is my DNA . Yes. That is what the science as as, as, as determined.

It’s my DNA . So if I borrow from that language, I borrow from the knowledge that is installed in my memory body, I’m just being sincere to myself.

Chipo – Mm-hmm.

Brady – Thank You. That makes so much sense. Just that’s very clear. 

Jelili – You’re welcome.

Brady – Chipo, shall I ask a question or do you want to? 

Chipo – I want to ask one question about your, your experience about representing Nigeria at the Venice Biennale, like how did it feel to represent your home country, especially being of one, like just being a singular you and just representing millions of people. Like how did you Yeah, I just wanna hear . What was your.. 

Jelili – Well, let me try to make a correction. I wasn’t re representing Nigeria. I participated in the central exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which is quite different from pavilion. Nigeria had a pavilion at the time of my participation, but I participated, I was invited in the central body of the Biennale. 

Brady – Oh, interesting.

Jelili – So I wasn’t representing anybody. I was representing humanity, so I was invited to be part of the central body . So, so to me it’s symbolical, it’s symbolical in the sense that you are inviting me into the center of the world. And I was asking myself, being in the center of the world, what is that things that is seeking expression that I need to put into that center of the world that is not gonna be by us. And so that was what dictated the contest, which I brought to, to the Venice . Mm. And I was talking about the feminine energy. At that time there was a central conversation of the world, which were being dictated by the US political scenario at that time.

And it was when I was invited, it was in 2016. The, the actual exhibition was in 2017. So in 2016 there was was the electionary campaign of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Mm-hmm. . Right. And, you know, at that time

Chipo –  how like charged and intense it was

Jelili – Yeah. How it was intense and how it become like a symbolical competition between masculine and feminine. Donald Trump representing the masculine in court. While Hillary representing the feminine. And you see how Donald Trump was ridiculing that feminine and to me, I felt embarrassed  because he used the degrading word, which was I, I grab pussy and it went viral , right? And to me, I just ask myself, how do we get to this state? Where we do not understand that the feminine en the feminine energy is a sacred body because this, the, the feminine energy is the, is it’s like, it’s like, it’s like … I will use Yoruba word.

It, it is … which like we can say in a loosely to be like a laboratory where humanity has been fashioned out. . Mm-hmm. . Yeah. And so if all of us come through, that’s, that’s passage, that’s Sacred Passage. And somebody was like, really cleaning it then, and, and, and, and, and to me, I, I felt really uncomfortable with that, that, and I said, okay, I am going to bring my work to, to bring attention into the sacredness, into the values, into the essentialities of this feminine body. So, so, so you could see that I wasn’t representing  any country. Mm-hmm. , but humanity. And that’s, that’s, that’s in, in Venice. And to me, Venice Biennale, you know, as positioned itself as one of the channels, one of the valuable channels for artists to, to, to present the, the act consciousness of the time, Venice Biennale as position itself, itself as, as, as, as a revenue for us to, to, to see the consciousness of art at the time.

Right? Yes. Yeah. Okay. So I was now saying that it become like imperative for me to bring out the, the context of the struggle. The, the, the, the, the, the, the struggles of the feminism or the feminine energy. I mean, I mean, sorry to use the word feminism, of feminine energy at, at the time in, and at the time of the Venice Biennale.

Brady – You use any words you want . I don’t. Yeah, I think that’s really such a great framing twist for Venice because a lot of people here talk about Venice as like more like the Olympics of art or like the peak of, of someone’s career. Mm-hmm. . But, but they, they, they don’t have that collective point of view. That sort of zeitgeist that, that that you are giving to it, which I really love.It, in fact, makes me, makes me way more interested in Venice all of a sudden.

Jelili –  Yes. Well, that, that is the way I view it. That is the way of, of course, you know, people who approach things according to, to their own level understanding of things, right? And when, when, when you are an artist and when you are invited, you have a kind of critical thinking about your presence there. What am I bringing forward? Mm-hmm. . What is, what is, what is, what is, what is the thing that you are bringing now? You know, well, I am. For example, when you go to hospital to meet, to meet a a doctor, you are not going there to joke. You are going there to, to, to examine yourself, isn’t it? So the same thing should be to me, that’s my, that’s my philosophy or participation.Philosophy of present. What am I doing there? What was my essence at at the, at the moment? , so, right. And if I’m, if I want to be, I should be able to be more meaningful. Right. And also be able to, to be more meaningful in a way that I feel, I, I feel more sincere to myself. Yes. Yes.

Brady – Hey Jelili, can I ask you a very specific question?

Jelili – Okay. Yeah. 

Brady – So I think you, you’ve spoken a lot about like your own – You are sort of how can I describe it? This, this presence that you’re bringing of, of sort of like being comfortable with yourself and the knowledges that you that you, that you bring. Right. And not not having to speak loud because. You, you know who you are, right? May maybe. Yeah. Yeah. But I’m, I’m thinking a little bit maybe about the audience and their role in your performance and, and only say what you’re comfortable in sharing. But in, in January, 2016, you were arrested and and you had just done a performance called Aragamago Must Will Rid This Land of Terrorism. And this was in in Your Homeland, so obviously some, someone there in the audience was talking to someone else. So maybe you can tell the story about what happened and how this impacted you and the community and how you see the audience’s role there. I mean, again, only say what you’re comfortable saying.I don’t know if, if this is a bit traumatic for you in terms of being arrested and yeah, I don’t, I don’t want to push, but maybe you can just tell us a, a bit around that. 

Jelili – Yeah. Well, thank you so much. You, you asked a very pertinent question about what is the audience to my practice. Audience is an element in my work. It’s an integral part of my work. Without the audience, it’s not gonna be right. But that is, that is a that is, that is this freedom of acceptance , the freedom of, of what you want to absorb from what I do, and freedoms of being there and freedom of not being there. Hmm. Right. So you have, you have your own, you know, freedom to, like I said, to be there and not to look and not to be.

So, and it’s also my freedom to express it the way I feel like, and so if, if you, if you don’t feel comfortable with what I’m doing, you just gonna go, I, I, it’s not going to be a, it’s not gonna be a colonial technique where you run things onto somebody and that the person accept. And that’s exactly what happened in, in, in, in, in my community. When I was arrested, something happened. I was, my, the performance at Aragamago Must Will Rid This Land of Terrorism, wa was kind of a reaction to an action that I see as in inhuman the highest, greater great of inhumanity, you know, and sometimes it’s very traumatic. To narrate the experience, you know, to narrate the incidents. 

But lemme just in, in, in, in the service, just, you know, go around it so that you can understand. Mm-hmm. There is a local markets in the community where, which is big, controlled by our local king. So the king employed special security outside the, the government security. And so these security outfits are allegedly arrested three women on the, on the, on the alleged that they stole.

Pepper chili that is used to cook. And when you look at the quantity of of, of the price of of the, of the pepper, it, it’s about five. It’s not up to, it’s not up to a dollar. Right. And they got these three people arrested, strip them naked. And insert the, they, they prepare a concoction made with liquor, strong liquor with dry pepper, powder, pepper, and they pour it together and stir it and pour it into their private parts.

Brady – Holy fuck. 

Jelili – You could imagine that terrible thing. . And so that was, that was the incident when, and this thing happened, they hided to the society for almost about one year. Nobody heard about that. And suddenly when they were doing that, they were, they were filming the incidents with their own phone.  And they push it out after a year and become viral.

And that’s happened in my community. It was a terrible thing. It was something that I had a sleepless night. I couldn’t, I couldn’t. It’s, it’s traumatic. It’s each time I remember it’s, I, I don’t know. So I did the performance as a protest against that incident. And, and, and I mentioned the kingdom as the power behind it.

And that got him annoyed, right? And he lied. After the performance, he, he called the police, lied to the police, and without the investigation, the police got me arrested. Got some of the audience arrested, and got some of my family arrested. And so we went with jail. You know, we were, we were remanded in, in prison and we went into to this area process that it was so intense, you know, for almost about six months.

Yeah. So that was what happened. It’s, it’s actually traumatic events that I didn’t want to recollect most of the memory. It is six years now, I’m begin to get myself together. So I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m, I, as soon as I’m, I’m working on a book for it now, so I wanna pour my feelings. I wanna pour everything out, you know, in a book.

Brady – Mm-hmm. Thank you for sharing that. I mean, I I just, what I was thinking like when you told that story is the power of, of names . You know, you said you named the king and that annoyed him.

Jelili – Yeah, I named the, the, the name of the king that I put it, I put it, I created I created a kind of  which like a poetry, a pamphlet.And I, and, and I and I, I, I, I, I linked it to the king, and I tried to collect all the king’s activities in the community that have been reported in newspaper. Right? And also the imagery, the, the, the most of the object of the performance were sacred objects. That, that, that, that, that, that are so powerful and sacred to its own institution.

Brady – To who? To, to the institution?

Jelili – Yes, to the traditional institution. To his own political, traditional political institutions of the king, right? Yeah.

Brady – Chipo, did you have any follow up questions for that? 

Chipo – No, I’m just taking it in. I’m just like reflecting. 

Brady – So, so sorry, I don’t know what it  looked like. Can you, I’m curious, so did it have a text? You said there was a text? 

Jelili – Yeah, there is. There is a video of it online. 

Brady – Okay. I’ll, I’ll watch it.

Jelili – I can send you the link. Thanks. So you can look at it or if I can search for it right now. 

Brady – Oh, don’t worry. I will. I’ll look. I’ll find it. It’s, it’s, oh, okay. I’m just, I’m just it’s just a bit heavy , I think. 

Jelili – Yeah, it’s really, it’s really heavy. Yeah. I can send you some of the links because it’s become like a national discourse. Yes. Mm-hmm.  in that time, the national discourse. Yes. You know, the people. Who were accused of the, of, of of, of that action were arrested. They were, they were tried and a lot of them died. Now, you know few of them who have, who did not, didn’t, did not die Also, as some of them are still in prison at the moment.

Brady – Wow. Okay. 

Jelili – It’s a kind of. . Really, really every, everything that I, sometimes I, it’s really heavy. Mm-hmm. . 

Chipo – Do you, I mean, having said all of that, like do you still feel safe to like talk about it? Because when we were researching you, I saw that like other publications were still writing about it and I think one of the titles, I don’t remember it word from word, but it just kind of brought up the fact that like art is a, is like freedom of speech and having read your story, I don’t.

I guess what I’m trying to say is like, how do you find like the courage to still make the work that you do, especially having experienced that?

Jelili – Yeah, because one thing that I want us to accept is the fact that if you have decided to do a thing, , you know, to me that thing is sacred and it become responsibility. And I, I must go ahead with that. I chose to be an artist. I was not forced to do it. Mm-hmm. It is, it’s what I feel comfortable doing. And in the, the point of that, if somebody feel my presence in it as an artist is being radical, well, the person has, who has accept the fact that I’m a human. . So I got my assistance to leave and I find out that art is only my, is the only vehicle for me to express myself more freer and I feel more comfortable with it.

Mm-hmm. . So if, if I say that I’m not gonna be practicing as an artist, it’s as if I’m saying that I am dying. It’s as if my, my life is, is, is becoming meaningless.  Because that is only forms of expressions that I have, you know, to express myself. So I just going to do it even though if, if it’s if, if it is a potential dangerous, to me, that’s part of life.

Life itself is, is, is, is risk. Where the space I am sitting down right now, I don’t know what’s happening outside. And it could be dangerous. Somebody may be planning to, to plant bomb somewhere. I don’t know. So life itself is, is risky now. Yeah. So what I think it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s safer If we as accept ourself as a fellow human being that have our own existence to live .

Brady – Say that again as your fellow human being that, 

Jelili – that if you were, if we all accept that Yes, the next person is a fellow human being. Yes. He has all, all rights to live as a human. 

Brady – Yes. So you’re, so you’re talking about acceptance, like a, a, a more radical acceptance, right ? Yes. More than acceptance. More would, would you say respect?

Jelili – What I was just trying to say if my, if my my present pertain radicalism. You just have to accept it. Yes. That is myself. Yes, because of course, I’m not going to infringe into your own rights. I’m just gonna be myself, express myself, and you see my body . Because when I did a performance, I wasn’t using as any other person’s body. I was using my, I was using my own body and the people who were accepted to perform with me use their own body, right?

Like I, and if anybody feel if, if anybody feel annoyance and I feel anger, that I also feel that it, you have the right to take me to, to the court . And let us go and, and talk about it in the court. Mm-hmm.  Or you have the right to say the opposite. And I say, well, this person did this and did this and did, and this performance was wrong.

He use this a symbol. It is wrong. He use this. Then we have a dialogue rather than lying. Rather than now put me into, into pains and also put my life and put all my family, they put the whole community into chaos. You know, there’s a lot of, you know, the aftermath experience of that performance was horrible.

if I tell you what I go through in, in prison and what the other five people go through in prison is horrible. Yeah. 

Chipo – No, we, no, we don’t need, no, we don’t need, because I, I’m also thinking about like your wellbeing and.The fact that you’re writing a book as well, could you please speak more to that? Like where are you at in the process? When do you hope that it’ll come out? 

Jelili – Can you say that again? 

Chipo – Your book? I said that I don’t want to, I don’t want to ask you to go into detail because it’s such a sensitive subject and I want to respect your boundaries. So if you would, like, we could talk about your book about it, because you said earlier on that you are working on a book about the experience.

Jelili – Yes, yes, yes. 

Chipo – Yeah. So would you prefer to talk about where you’re at with the book when you believe it’ll be published? 

Jelili – Well, yeah, of course. I’m, I’m working on it. I’m collecting the material. It’s like kind of a personal memo. My, my kind of a diary of my experience in, in than as soon as I’m ready.

But I hope, I hope before, before  year ending of next year, I should be able to present it to the public. 

Chipo – Wonderful. 

Jelili – Well, you know, actually I have been trying to struggle with vocabulary. Yes, and struggling with vocabulary that put limitation into the, the, the, the extension of idea, the modern time as the way of bossing idea and say, no, this cannot be this, this has to be this. Mm. Live art is life. That’s what I wanna say. Performance is live art, where the body is involved and you are not pretending, you are not reacting. And sometimes it is organics and sometimes it’s has to do about life. Right. Right. So if you wanna, if you wanna define it in the way you want to, it is all left to you . But to me, just put it as a live art. Right. Hmm. Yeah, because it’s gonna be more problematic when you begin. Look like I, I keep telling people that my body is involved, my body is a material that I use Yes. As a form of expression. So, so it’s my, so, so in in, in a situation. I am not going to be acting idea, but I’m, I’m performing idea.

I am doing idea. You know, I am doing a philosophy. I am doing it. Yeah. I want to go to the toilet. You see me in the toilet and you see feces coming outta my body. As in life. Yes. In my performance. I want to be naked. You are seeing me naked, not faking it. Right. You know, so you are saying everything that is live, everything that is the body is there, the presence of the body.

It, it’s, it is pure form.

Chipo – And I believe that is that for this episode, I would just like to say a big thank you to my guests and I would also like to say thank you to both LIVE Biennale and the city of Vancouver for funding this project. Thank you.